Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 August 2003
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Reform under siege

Washington's plans to transform the Middle East look increasingly naïve, writes Hala Mustafa*

Hala Mustafa When the US went to war and toppled the Iraqi regime, quicker than even the Americans themselves had expected, President Bush announced that the new Iraq would be a model for democracy to be emulated throughout the region. A democratic Iraq, he said, would stimulate the processes of change, modernisation and political reform, marginalise the factors that give rise to extremism and terrorism and give birth to a new Middle East, a Middle East free of those endemic ills that have long plagued its societies and governments and inhibited progress and development.

Because the Middle East's most salient ill, in US eyes, was "oriental despotism", in its political, social and cultural projections, it was necessary to inflict a military defeat upon one of its most malignant manifestations. The war on Iraq was to be the shock that stunned the region into wakefulness. And when it opened its eyes it would find that the world had changed, that the way was paved to embrace its newborn infant -- "democracy" -- and all its corollaries, from freedom, tolerance, plurality and diversity to the respect for individual and civil rights, and the rights of women, the sector of society to have suffered the most from political, cultural and social oppression. In a word, the US wanted, and still wants, to change the Middle East.

The purpose of this article is not to probe US motives, whether inspired by principle or petroleum, or to discuss the agenda of the neo-conservatives in the White House. Rather, it is to give pause to a question that preoccupies both Arabs and Americans: Has the shock of Iraq truly brought us to the threshold of a new Middle East, as strident American rhetoric has it?

A reading of current realities in the region provides little succour to anyone seeking a positive answer to this question, and it is far from the case that the reasons for this are located exclusively within the Iraqi situation. As complex as that may be, and regardless of the armed resistance against US presence, the situation in Iraq is far from being the only obstacle facing US strategy in the region.

The substance of this strategy, after all, is to precipitate sweeping social and cultural -- and not merely political -- change. If democracy is to become more than a glimmering slogan, faith in its principles and commitment to its practices must extend from the ruling elite to all other segments of society.

But what do current realities tell us?

Firstly, political activity in the region, even as manifested through the polls should judgment be deferred to the electorate through the ballot box, remains heavily populist, as it had been for years since the independence. "Populist" implies a demagogic tendency clearly distinct from democratic plurality in its modern sense. In the Arab world populist movements aimed to unite people behind a single political- ideological drive that generally pitted itself against such externally imposed challenges as colonialism and imperialism. Such were the domestic, regional and international circumstances in the 1950s and 1960s, during which these political-ideological drives gained impetus that they evolved into truly popular mass movements, their leaders becoming symbols of independence. Not only did circumstances make it easy to unify the people behind the movement's goals, they also made it easy for these goals to supercede a host of other ideals and principles that, at the time, were held to be divisive (such as political plurality, multiparty politics, a free press) or else a remnant of the "culture of imperialism" and a tool for reactionary forces, which is how the contemporary rhetoric cast liberalism, capitalism, individualism and democracy, often distorting these concepts in the process.

The populist projects that swept the region in this period tended to adopt a state party system as a form of government, a socialist approach to economics and political aspirations and policies that were pan-Arab in scope.

With the evanescence of the state party system, in the mid-1970s, observers had expected a substantial shift towards political plurality and a multiparty system. Instead political activity moved in another direction. At the moment that some governments initiated the transition to multiparty politics there emerged another, or alternative, populist project, one motivated by ideas that were even more restrictive of individual and civil liberties. I refer, here, to "political Islam", a spectrum of trends and movements that at one extreme advocates violence. Against the growing sway of this populist project the call to democracy, with its corollaries of broadening popular participation, increasing the scope of civil and individual liberties, promoting the role of women in the public sphere, respect for non-conformity and the right to free expression, creativity and diversity of choice, moved further out of reach, seeming at times increasingly alien to the mood that had come to prevail in the political life of the Arab world and the Middle East in general.

The flip side to this phenomenon is that the forces that would presumably spearhead the processes of democratisation and liberalisation are powerless to counter the prevalent trend. Execrated and excluded in the 1950s and 1960s, the "liberals" today are weak and fragmented. Lacking any organisational coherence they remain unrepresented in the leaderships of most Arab polities, with the exception, perhaps, of a few cases that do not exceed "political cosmetics".

The political scenery, as it stands at present, thus suggests that populist politics will continue to shape socio-political development for the foreseeable future and that non-populist trends will remain sidelined or subverted by traditional tribal, regional and religious forces.

A second reality that bodes ill for democratisation pertains to the ramifications of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the perpetuation of which can only fuel the political tendencies mentioned above. Most of the political movements that possess paramilitary wings and propound radical ideologies inherently inimical to democracy, plurality and liberalism are engaged in resistance to the Israeli occupation. It is this focus that confers upon these movements their political legitimacy and provides their widespread support, not only at the grassroots but also at the official level. Regardless of their political orientations and positions ruling elites have little alternative but to acknowledge the legitimacy of the resistance organisations, even if such acknowledgement runs counter to their attitudes towards similar movements in their own countries. As a result, as long as the occupation continues, few will look beyond the principle of "legitimate national resistance" to consider the actual nature of the socio- political project of movements such as Hizbullah, Hamas and Jihad.

Compounding this predicament are tensions, latent or overt, between the US and certain Arab regimes, a result of Washington's declared strategy of "war against terrorism". In spite of the uniqueness of the Iraqi case, Washington's strategy extends beyond that country and has already fixed its sights on Iran and Syria. Even some of the US's closest friends and allies are not immune. Saudi Arabia, for example, has come under attack in congress for its espousal of the highly conservative Wahabi doctrine, which has been adopted, over the past three decades, by several political movements the influence of which range well beyond Saudi borders. In order to preserve relations with the Saudi ruling house President Bush has withheld from congress a section of the report on the situation of the Middle East prior to 11 September. Because of long term strategic relations between Washington and the Saudi Arabia, Washington's ambivalence towards domestic Saudi politics can be expected to continue beyond the current administration.

The Saudi anomaly, however, does not detract from the fundamental thinking behind US strategy towards the region. In essence, this strategy holds that there is a great threat to the US and the American people from the Middle East, that this threat emanates from the nature of societies in this region and that the solution is to hasten democratisation and reform.

This conviction does not present a problem in and of itself. The problem resides in the policies it produces, policies that must inevitably be interventionist in nature and should, therefore, be grounded in a comprehensive and thoroughly studied vision if they are not to backfire. The question is whether Washington possesses such a vision. Does it know exactly how to deal with individual instances; can it distinguish between one case and another, seemingly similar? Can it undertake that task single- handedly if it finds that its conviction is not reflected in the attitudes within the region it is trying to change? Is it possible to impose from abroad the modernisation necessary for any democratic experience? What would be the nature of the reforms it institutes, where would they begin and what are the prospects of success?

As the political-social-cultural situation stands merely to issue inspiring appeals to democracy will not produce the "astounding" results the US claims to hope for. Certainly there is a danger latent in the excessive emphasis on democratic processes. Free elections, for example, could well bring victory to populist or totalitarian forces that would subvert the future of democracy in the region as soon as they came into power. Because of their appeal as champions of resistance, or because they resonate within the deeper culture prevalent in the region these forces, whether we like it or not, are gaining new ground every day.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqratiya (Democracy) published by Al-Ahram.

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